Cognitive performance isn’t about fancy brain training – 7 tips that truly make your brain sharper

Cognitive performance is, in short, about keeping your brain sharp. But improving your cognitive performance doesn’t happen through tricky brain-games (multiple studies speak to this) – it’s a holistic approach involving body, mind, behaviours and emotions. Here you will find our top 7 actions for improving your cognitive performance – holistically.


Research shows that sleep deprivation impairs attention, working memory, decision making, and learning, which are all fundamental elements of cognitive performance. Sleep has not only been found to be necessary for healthy cognitive function, but it’s considered a cognitive enhancer.

1 | SLEEP: Set a go-to-sleep alarm

The secret to good quality sleep is keeping a consistent sleep schedule. But deciding on a consistent bedtime is not enough, we also need to stick to it. This tip may help. When we wake up tired in the morning we promise to go early to bed. But once evening comes, the promise is lost - phone, TV, work … we lose hours of valuable sleep. Try setting a (recurring) go-to-sleep alarm for your chosen sleep time. Set an alarm on your phone or bring your alarm clock into the living room - when it rings you know it's the angel on your shoulder sending you off to bed.

2 | Define your evening routine

A 2016 study found that 68% of adults struggle with sleep at least once a week. What we do hours before we go to bed, preparing our body and mind for sleep has a great impact on sleep quality.

What could your optimal evening routine look like to help you unwind? A few ideas:

  • Make reading before bed a habit – it’s been shown to improve sleep quality (as long as it’s nothing too stimulating)
  • Turn off all electronic devices by e.g. 8:30pm
  • Write: a gratitude list or about your day – research shows you fall asleep on average 9 minutes faster
  • Have a warm drink, like chamomile tea – studies show it helps you relax

Sources: AC Paladini et al (2010).; The Connection Between Writing and Sleep, Psychology Today


3 | Block out time in your calendar for doing focused work

We often spend our days firefighting, in meetings, on email and responding to demands from others. Only around 2% of the population can multi-task successfully, so the rest of us need to protect our calendars to also get enough time for focused work. Try this: right now, block out a two 2-3 hour timeslots in your calendar for the next week. Reserve it for something important that needs your full attention - planning a project, writing a report, creating a presentation.

Read more: This Is Your Brain On Multitasking, Psychology Today

4 | Avoid email for the first hour of the day

73% of the workforce feel they're expected to be always-on. We check our phones on the way to work and on the way home; before bed and first thing in the morning. Connectedness has its benefits, but it's also adding to our stress.
Try this: take a week when you avoid email for the first hour of every day. Use the time on focused work, family, or something relaxing.

Read more: Device-free time is as important as work-life balance, Harvard Business Review


5 | Add a 10 minute boost of physical activity to your workday

Research shows that a single bout of exercise can improve executive function, enhance mood and decrease stress levels. Moreover, exercise has been shown to reduce cognitive decline caused be sleep deprivation. This doesn’t mean that you can sleep less if you just move more, but highlights the importance of physical activity for cognitive performance.

Try to figure out a way to add just 10 minutes of physical activity to your workday. These can be short low-intensity efforts (no training gear or need to shower), for example:

  • Start your day with a 10 min bodyweight workout
  • Get off one stop earlier on your commute to work
  • Walk to a lunch place further away
  • Aim to walk up five flights of stairs every day


Research on the link between nutrition and cognitive performance is abundant, and the key point is this: do not underestimate the importance of diet on your brain. You wouldn’t expect your car to run smoothly on unclean fuel, and your brain is no different.

6 | Find your rhythm for caffeine & water

A simple starting point for most people is finding the appropriate balance of two liquids: water and caffeinated tea or coffee.
With water, it’s simple: you should stay hydrated throughout the day. A 2% reduction in hydration levels already affects your attention, memory and psychomotor skills.

Caffeine can boost your cognitive performance, as long as you follow one rule of thumb: little and often. With a minimum dose (some sources quote 0.3mg/kg/hour) you can maintain alertness, but not overdo it. Remember to have your last cup after lunch so it doesn’t affect your sleep!
What’s your optimal daily rhythm for liquids? Try it for a few weeks and see how you feel.

Source: Adan, A. (2012) Cognitive performance and hydration; Wyatt et al. (2004) Low-dose repeated caffeine administration.


Research has found that emotions can strongly influence cognitive performance, including selective attention, working memory, and cognitive control. Both positive and negative emotions can be beneficial – what’s important is making the most of them.

7 | Identify your positive emotions

Positive emotions have been shown to broaden your attention and thinking, increase cognitive flexibility, foster goal-pursuit motivation, and buffer against negative situations.

Make it a habit to note one positive emotion, every day. For best effect, write it down. Remember that positive emotions are not just about puppies and rainbows – try these questions to find more stable and long-term sources of positive emotions:

  • What brought you joy today?
  • What are you thankful for today?
  • What inspired you today?
  • This is an excellent exercise to do just before bedtime, so you can fall asleep happy.

As a summary, how your brain works is a complex equation of how you move, sleep, eat, rest and feel. It’s not about brain training apps, green tea capsules, or coenzyme Q10. All that’s fine, but you’re more likely to see better benefits from a brisk walk or a good night’s slumber.

James Hewitt, Hintsa Performance

James Hewitt is a performance scientist, speaker, and author with over 15 years of experience in human high performance. With a background in professional sports. James is fascinated about the idea of optimizing knowledge work in the same way endurance athletes optimize their training. His research at Loughborough University focuses on knowledge work, and he’s ranked as the #1 researcher in the world in Sport, Exercise and Health Science. James works with Formula 1 drivers and teams, advises Fortune 500 C-suite executives and consults a large range of organizations on matters related to health and high performance.

These and a range of other topics will be discussed in the Technopolis Wellness Talks webinars powered by Hintsa Performance throughout 2020. Hintsa Performance coaches and experts will share their experience and tips on work, wellbeing, performance, and life in general. Join us online, and invite your colleague too. James shared his views in Technopolis Wellness Talks webinar.

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The above text is from the Technopolis Wellness Talks "How to improve your cognitive performance and work smarter, not harder" webinar which was organized on March 11, 2020. Webinars are organized in cooperation with Hintsa Performance.

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